Cambodia’s Ministry of Justice on Friday labeled acting opposition chief Sam Rainsy’s planned return from self-imposed exile in November part of a “coup,” vowing to jail supporters from the general public for “15-30 years” and government officials for life.
“Those who take part in the plan to stage a coup and topple the government will be prosecuted and face 15-30 years [in prison], and if the suspects are officials, they will be sentenced to life in jail,” the ministry said in a statement, referring to an announcement by the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) that Sam Rainsy will travel to Cambodia to lead a “restoration of democracy” in the country.
“The spokesman of the Ministry of Justice urges authorities at all levels to take strict measures against criminals to protect social stability,” the statement said.
Sam Rainsy plans to reenter Cambodia along with several other high-ranking CNRP officials on Nov. 9, to coincide with the 66th anniversary of Cambodia’s independence from France, despite facing a string of convictions and arrest warrants he says are politically motivated.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court banned the CNRP in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to topple Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime, two months after police arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha and accused him of planning a coup. The opposition leader faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of treason, but no date has been set for his trial.
The moves against the political opposition, along with a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election. Hun Sen has been in power since 1985.
Cambodia’s move to de fact one-party rule drew condemnation from Western governments following the ballot, with the U.S. imposing visa sanctions on officials seen as limiting democracy in the country and the EU launching a six-month monitoring period that ended last month to determine whether Cambodia should continue to qualify for tax-free access to the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service during an interview in Washington on Friday, Sam Rainsy said that the ministry’s statement would not scare away supporters from joining him when he travels to Cambodia.
“In Cambodia, if you are accused of being a traitor, it really means you are a patriot,” he said.
“The country’s leaders who claim themselves to be patriots—they are the actual traitors … I urge members of the armed forces to defect from Hun Sen and join with the people. If they do so, they will become national heroes.”
Sam Rainsy said his plan to return home and lead “a peaceful protest to strip Hun Sen of power” had not changed, and that his new government will “kick out the Chinese and refuse Beijing permission to use Cambodia as its military base.”
“Hun Sen is working with China and China is expanding its influence and invading other countries, but when we return to a true democracy we will regain our integrity,” he said.
“Under Hun Sen, Cambodia lacks both democracy and territorial integrity.”
While relations with the West have increasingly soured in the aftermath of the general election, which was widely seen as a rollback of democratic freedoms, Cambodia’s government has since touted improved ties with China, which typically offers funding without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements to human rights and rule of law.
Chinese investment now flows into Cambodian real estate, agriculture and entertainment—particularly to the port city of Sihanoukville—but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.
In July, The Wall Street Journal cited U.S. and allied officials as saying that Phnom Penh had signed a secret deal with Beijing to allow the Chinese to use part of the Ream Navy Base in Sihanoukville for 30 years and to post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships—a report that was later cited by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in a letter of concern to Hun Sen.
Sam Rainsy traveled to the U.S. on Wednesday and met with U.S. lawmakers, seeking to enlist their help as he prepares to reenter Cambodia in November, and while he said that he had “discussed all aspects” of the situation he faces, he did not elaborate on the particulars of their conversations.
“The U.S. is a good friend of Cambodia, so when we are dealing with important issues, we must inform them and ask for their advice and support from the U.S.,” he said.
Search without warrant
Meanwhile, more than 100 police officers were deployed to the home of CNRP activist Nhem Van in Svay Rieng province’s O’Meas Haek district as other members of the party gathered there on Friday, his son, Nhem Virak, told RFA.
At least 20 officers entered the home without a search warrant, according to Nhem Virak, who said they were searching for his father.
“I asked what he had done wrong—this was brutal, because we didn’t breach any law,” he said.
An activist who attended the gathering and declined to be named, out of fear of reprisal, said that the police wanted to arrest Nhem Van because he had spoken with RFA about his plan to accompany Sam Rainsy on his return.
RFA spoke with a police officer named Chea Sok who refused to comment on the incident and referred questions to his supervisor, Provincial Police Chief Keng Khorn.
RFA was unable to reach Keng Khorn by telephone, but the police chief told local media that the house was searched because the CNRP activists had “gathered without a permit.”
Nuth Bopinaroth, a coordinator for Svay Rieng with local rights group Lichado, said the police had violated Cambodia’s constitution because they lacked a search warrant.
“The police are just afraid that people will gather to welcome Sam Rainsy, but if they aren’t in breach of any law, it is a violation of human rights,” he said.
“[Because of the planned return of] Sam Rainsy, the police are focusing on [intimidating] former CNRP officials.”
Nhem Virak urged human rights groups to intervene his case, saying the police are monitoring his home as part of a bid to arrest his father.
Authorities have stepped up harassment of CNRP activists and supporters since Sam Rainsy announced his plans to return to Cambodia, detaining 27 since the beginning of the year and subjecting at least 156 to interrogation over the same period.
On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department expressed concern over the detention of political activists in Cambodia and urged Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to lift restrictions on members of the CNRP, after six were detained over the weekend.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.